My mother-in-law’s memory loss continues to deteriorate. When we converse we seem to spin in ever a smaller circles. Our conversations used to contain several topics that popped up again and again. Now the conversation tends to orbit around one topic, often our current location.
The other day our conversation went like this:
Dorris: Where do I live?
Me: You live at the Arbors.
Dorris: Where are we?
Me: We are in Lincoln.
Dorris: Do you live in Lincoln?
Me: Yes, we all live in Lincoln.
Dorris: Where do I live?
Me: You live in Lincoln.
Dorris: Oh, Kim, this scares me.
Me: It scares me too, but I know you are safe.
Showing compassion sounds like an easy thing, but may in fact, be more complicated than we think. There are several ways to respond to Dorris. I could recognize her fear, and fight it:
“Oh, Dorris, don’t worry. I know where we are. Leave it up to me.”
Or, I could flee from it:
“Dorris what do you have to worry about? Your life is easy. Someone is always there to tell you what to do.”
Perhaps, I could try to experience her fear for her:
“ I know what you mean. I’ve felt lost before, too.”
The worst response would be to lose patience with her or to ignore her. This would give her the message that she doesn’t deserve compassion. I must admit that around about the tenth time in an hour when we have this conversation, this type of response is all too tempting.
The best response of compassion requires empathy. It is a challenge to empathize with a person who is losing her memory. How can I know what it feels like to lose words within seconds of hearing them? How can I know what it feels like to have nothing be familiar? Or what it feels like to be unsure of everything? How can I know what to say that will bring comfort? Even if I find that comfort, it will last for only seconds. My response to Dorris is never quite right, it is never enough. I must trust the love of God to cover my feeble responses with His perfect compassion.
If it is a challenge for me to be patient with someone I love, imagine how hard it is to show compassion to someone I don’t know. To show compassion to someone who is different from me. To show compassion to someone who does not inspire compassion because perhaps, he has not earned it.
Lately, among political pundits and in social media, I had seen increasing evidence of this kind of conditional compassion. When we begin to think compassion is only for those who are suffering due to circumstances beyond their control, we give ourselves permission to ignore the sufferings of those who bear some responsibility for their condition. Perhaps those who spent their money unwisely, did not pursue education that would give them a high paying job, chose to live in a dangerous area, or haven’t managed to find a job that gives them health insurance. It is easy to tell ourselves that such compassion is not only undeserved, but is potentially harmful.
Since when do any of us earn compassion? I may earn my own money for food, although just barely at the moment, but I have never earned the compassion of my Savior. If God waited for us to earn compassion, then once we did earn it, we would no longer need it. In fact, if we could earn compassion through righteousness and careful decision-making, we would not even need God. Our faith is built on the truth that we cannot earn compassion, but never-the-less it is given freely.
Compassion is never earned, it is always given out of unconditional love. Compassion does not mean there is no punishment for wrongdoing, no consequence for poor decisions, and it doesn’t guarantee rescue. In our relationship with God compassion is always present. Compassion must be present or there would be no relationship, there would be no life.
We are expected to forgive each other because God forgives us. We are expected to love each other because God loves us. Likewise, we are expected to show compassion, unconditionally, because we receive such compassion from Him. While compassion sometimes involves rescue, it is separate from that act. Compassion is empathy. Compassion is love. Compassion is making ourselves equal with others because we recognize we also do not deserve the compassion we receive.
We do not have to all endorsed the same political solutions in order to show compassion. We just need to remember where compassion originates and practice it.
In my own life, when I have been confronted with my lack of compassion, I have been forced to wonder if compassion was replaced by my fear. Sometimes I don’t want to get involved. Sometimes I want to convince myself that what I have done has earned me my life. This fear too easily replaces compassion with contempt. If I want to give others only what they have earned then contempt is where I want to be. However, I most certainly do not want the contempt I deserve from my fellow man or my Heavenly Father. There is no love, or life, found in contempt.
Just as God is the only one who can show true compassion, He is the only one who can give us the courage to be compassionate. He can, and does, take away our fear and our contempt. He mercifully replaces that fear and contempt with a desire and ability to show compassion. We are blessed when we show compassion. We are blessed with empathy and understanding and we are blessed to use our faith. Most importantly, we are blessed by God’s compassion for us.
Our world is a complicated confusing place. Scripture does not give us political solutions, it does not give us simple answers, but it does give us direction, and hope, and faith. God shows me compassion day after day. He shows me compassion even when I cannot comprehend the world as He does. He shows me compassion even when I forget it seconds after I have been blessed. His love always holds me as His precious child.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. Lamentations 3: 22-26 ESV
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. Romans 15:1-2 ESV
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Galatians 6: 1-3 ESV